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Passing the Truth Test

Yisroel Besser

When Rabbi Shimon Yosef Meller began investigating the Brisker dynasty, he didn’t yet enjoy the trust of the naturally wary family. But they went from being curious to tolerant to actually supporting his efforts, and once the Soloveitchik family was behind him, he was given access to their documents, and to their memories. In his most ambitious project yet, 15 years in the making, the prolific author captures the enormity of Rav Chaim and brings his audience back to Brisk.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Small tins of pineapple slices and bottles of grape juice lined the table, 100 little monuments to discipline and halachic precision. The Purim decor at the home of my rosh yeshivah wasn’t very colorful or festive — the sole items that he would accept for shalach manos were, if memory serves me correctly, the Thai-produced pineapple chunks and a specific brand of grape juice. That was it. There were no elaborate sushi platters or trays of chocolate, no home-baked cakes or kugels; Rav Dovid Soloveitchik eats little, and certainly won’t partake in foods not prepared by his own family members. I recall how the small supermarkets around Geulah quickly ran out of the canned pineapples, how the curly-haired makolet owner next door to our bochurim’s dirah (a Russian immigrant who, for some reason, found it hilarious to refer to all American yeshivah bochurim as “Yanky”) spread his arms apart. “Lo nishar li ha’ananasim shel Reb Dovid.” The Rosh Yeshivah’s Purim tish compensated for what it lacked in color with atmosphere, an elevated, serious air in the crowded room. Rav Dovid Soloveitchik received talmidim and local dignitaries, sharing Brisker insights and closing his eyes tight, tapping his hands in time to spirited singing. People came and went. From our perch in the corner of the room, we noticed how a relatively young man — more Chevron than Brisk in appearance — entered and was welcomed warmly, given a seat right next to Reb Dovid. The Rosh Yeshivah clearly appreciated the visitor with the necktie and trimmed red beard, and I listened to the buzz around me. “That’s Shimon Yosef Meller,” one of the veteran talmidim said knowingly. The others nodded. A talmid of both Chevron and Reb Dovid, Rabbi Meller had authored a popular set of seforim of Brisker Torah called Shai L’Torah. That year, he had ventured even deeper into the world of Brisker lore, authoring a compendium of Uvdos V’Hanhagos [Stories and Customs] m’Beis Brisk. It was a risky business. In Brisk, stories are automatically discounted if they don’t have a mesorah. In beis Harav, the stories are transmitted from father to son like heirlooms, and this “Torah shebe’al peh” makes up a great part of the Brisker experience. But it was obvious that Purim day that Reb Dovid — the elder of the house of Brisk — liked the visitor. Later, when Reb Shimon Yosef left, Reb Dovid looked after him and said as much, responding to the grumbling of some of the older talmidim. “Meller is a ne’eman, he is reliable.” The supreme compliment in a home where few attributes are more prized than truth.

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